Welcome to the long overdue return of ‘A Skewed Perspective’ a series in which I intend to talk about films from the perspective as a dramaturg for the theatre, and in doing so cross the lines between writing about theatre, writing and film, and writing about films depiction of theatre.
The subject of this second part is the 2014 Alejandro G. Iñárritu film “BIRDMAN or (The unexpected virtue of ignorance). This article contains numerous spoilers for the film, so proceed at your own discretion.
Aside from the obvious, that being that the film itself takes place around a theatrical production, I was also tempted to address this particular film because of the kind of bold headlines such as this that it received:http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/jan/07/birdman-best-film-about-theatre-ever-made
Aside from the articles headline question “It might stake a decent claim to be the best film about theatre ever made” a claim which it doesn’t make much effort in really investigating, the film drew a strong response from theatre critics in attempts to “claim” the film for theatre by the logic that it speaks more to the condition of the theatre than it does to that of modern cinema. Whilst it may at first seem that this article too is an attempt to write Birdman as a piece of theatrical work, it should be obvious that the work can and indeed likely is, equally party to the perspectives of film and theatre, with film drawing a slightly greater relevance when discussion form. It should also be clear by now that I approach with a skewed perspective, making me more inclined and more able to speak to the theatrical than the cinematic.
It is also curious that the film utilises cinematographic techniques to present the illusion of a single uncut shot, which whilst not being a theatrical device, is somewhat closer to the manner in which theatre is presented than the majority of cinematic offerings.
Another reason that Birdman appeared to attract the attention of critics was the depiction of a theatre critic in the form of Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) the theatre critic for the New York Times whose hostile exchanges with the films protagonist and former Hollywood movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) in a theatreland bar appear on the surface to represent another example of an irreconcilable agon between creators and critics of art. Their meeting occurs on the eve of Riggan’s self-adapted, self-directed, and starring broadway theatre debut. In the films first encounter with Tabitha, there is an acknowledged mutual respect between herself and veteran theatre actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), as a result of their both having long-standing careers in the theatre. Tabitha we are told, has never given Mike a bad review, and yet as he tells her, he expects to receive one, should he ever produce a bad performance. In that moment Mike seemingly includes the critic as a vital part of his craft as an actor, which for him exists to pay witness and testament to the evanescent art of his. For Riggan however, Tabitha becomes immediately hostile, threatening to close his play with a scathing review. For Tabitha it is clear that she sees the ageing blockbuster movie star Riggan’s sudden move into the upper echelons of theatrical production as a triumph for the unearned:
Tabitha: You don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece without through me first…so break a leg
In retaliation Riggan snatches at her latest review from her notepad and lambasts her for her lack of investment in the craft she professes to care about so much:
Riggan: There’s nothing in here about technique, there’s nothing in here about structure, there’s nothing here about intention. It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions backed up by even crappier comparisons. You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this costs you fucking anything! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Well I’m a fucking actor…this play cost me everything
Amidst this Riggan lets fly with a spew of insults about Tabitha and her profession, but at its core Riggan laments the lack of critique in mainstream theatre criticism.
Ultimately as his mental state deteriorates, Riggan, like his character is driven to attempt suicide at the plays climax. It could be considered an irony then given Riggan’s earlier outburst about criticism that his ultimate slippage between the world of the play and the world outside that his attempt at sacrificing himself literally to the moment comes to be hailed by Dickinson as a genre-breaking triumph of ‘super-realism’.
At the height of his existential crisis, Riggan, brown-paper bag wrapped bottle in hand, wanders the streets around the theatre to the agonised cries of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, the soliloquy of Macbeth’s as delivered by a raving bystander whose passionate delivery scrapes at Riggan’s own anxieties. It is curious too that Macbeth, a play known for its superstitious resonance is cited in a film that plays with the imagery of the theatre as a site of ghosts and omens. Quite early in the film, a rehearsal is thrown into disarray by a lantern plummeting from the grid above and taking out one of the actors, endangering the production from the perspective of the shows producer, but potentially saving it from the perspective of Riggan (the injured actor was particularly bad, he thinks).
Following the incapacitation of one of the company, Riggan is given the chance to bring in veteran theatre actor and critical darling Mike Shiner, who is both feared and respected as an uncompromising performer. Upon the two first meeting, we find ourselves again returned to the themes of superstition and haunting, with Mike standing onstage with the ghost light and evoking the spirits of those who came before:
Mike: it’s intimidating isn’t it, you have any idea the people who’ve walked on these board before you?
. What follows is a terse, bristling exchange, with both painfully aware of the paradox at the heart of Riggan’s position: being the most power person in the show as director, adaptor, and star but being the most vulnerable by virtue of inexperience.
Mike : You wrote this adaptation?
Riggan: I did, yeah
Mike: and you’re directing and starring in your adaptation?
Mike: That’s ambitious
Mike: Well, it’s a good theatre, can’t speak for your play but let’s do a little bit of it, yeah?
Following this, Riggan and Mike begin to workshop the material, with Mike immediately jumping in without the aid of the script, having already become familiar by assisting one of Riggan’s co-stars Lesley (Naomi Watts) with her lines. Riggan’s response to the ease with which Shiner came to learn the lines is disbelief, with him offering the script over at multiple points, much to Shiner’s annoyance. Already a fissure appears between the different acting methods used by Mike and Riggan, with Mike keen to lift the material off of the page as quickly as possible and to play around with the variations of the material, and Riggan keen to maintain tightly rehearsed uncomplicated delivery of the lines. As the scene progresses and Riggan begins to rattle through though his rehearsed delivery, Mike wanders the set in an agitated manner and proceeds to break down the dramaturgy of the scene, pulling apart Riggan’s lines in particular for their repetitive nature: “make it work with just one line” he remarks.
At the heart of the conflict between Mike and Riggan, and indeed between Riggan and his artistic ambitions, is a constant struggle between the safe, conservatism of ‘a dead theatre’ and the danger of a ‘living performance’. For Riggan this plays into his enduring anxiety about cost and sacrifice. Financially the production has cost Riggan a great deal, but it is clear that the financial trappings offered to him from his career in Hollywood does not satisfy him, hence his foray into the theatre. On an emotional level, the adaptation in question, of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” harks back to Riggan’s reason for wanting be an actor, after the author himself slipped a note of congratulations on a cocktail napkin to the young Riggan after a school play. In return to this ‘origin’ of his identity, Riggan is attempting to reconstruct his identity as well as purge himself of the destiny and promise that he feels has haunted him ever since he took to carrying the now dog-eared cocktail napkin around in his pocket. As Riggan comes to discover throughout the process, despite his financial investment and emotional turmoil, he is unable to truly sacrifice himself to living the moment on stage.
Riggan confronts this most starkly during a disastrous preview performance in which Mike breaks character to berate the whole conceit of Riggan’s production:
Riggan: Mike, come on, you’re drunk
Mike: I’m drunk, yes I’m drunk. I’m supposed to be drunk, why aren’t you drunk. This is Carver, he left a piece of his liver on the table every time he wrote a fucking page, if I need to be drinking gin, who the fuck are you to touch my gin man? Listen, you fucked with the period, you fucked with the plot so that you could have the best lines, you leave me the fucking tools that I need. Come on people, don’t be so pathetic, stop looking at the world through your cell phone screens and have a real experience. Does anybody give a shit about truth other than me? I mean this set is fake, the bananas are fake, there’s fucking nothing in this milk carton, your performance is fake, the only thing that is real on this stage is this chicken, so I’m gonna work with the chicken!
In his critique, Mike hits upon the idea that despite his claim to be placing everything on the line, Riggan’s has stacked everything in his favour, by having written himself the best lines, by being seen to take on an ambitious and worthy project, and by placing himself in a situation where there need only be a celebrity on stage for the audience to be satisfied. Backstage in the theatre after the preview, Riggan confronts Mike which leads to them fighting until Mike remarks that:
Mike: Tonight was about seeing if it’s even alive, seeing if it can bleed.
Throughout, Shiner is seen to champion the idea of a living theatre, immediate in the sense that it requires the undivided attention of its spectators, something which for him is challenged by the prevalence of mobile phones and celebrity-spotting whispers running throughout the crowd. For Riggan and the other members of the cast, Shiner’s reliance on authenticity and extreme immediacy (the very qualities that seem to make him the lauded performer that he is) proves very trying as he: insists on drinking real gin throughout the performance, attempts to have sex with co-cast member Lesley during their staged sex scene, and insists on the most realistic firearms over the conventional stage replicas, a move that will ultimately lead to nobody noticing Riggan’s attempted suicide until it is too late.
For Riggan, Shiner’s flexibility from moment to moment trouble his lack of responsiveness, with him playing each line in pre-rehearsed patterns, and moving in theatrical pre-blocked gestures. In one choice example, in which by way of a farce-like set of circumstances, Riggan finds himself running around the outside of the theatre in just his underwear and only finding his way back into the auditorium via a marching band performance and the theatre’s bemused front of house staff. However, the result of him storming in from the back of the auditorium is an inadvertent theatrical thrill, startling the audience into screams and cries at what would otherwise be a predictable entrance. In his unexpected location of entrance and unclothed body, Riggan’s performance momentary defies the muted scenography of his own production by shirking the entrance-ways marked into the set and the naturalistic costume design.
For Riggan, the theatre is a place of haunting, with the onstage drama coming to haunt his off-stage life including his characters broken and suicidal mental state, but he struggles too with the character of Birdman, a gaudy superhero he played in a series of blockbuster films decades before the events of the film. For much of the public, Riggan Thompson is Birdman, and it is that franchise that has enabled him the platform on broadway. In this sense the haunting of Riggan by Birdman prevents him from existing as the living/performing body required by the act of live theatre. The kind of theatre he is involved with requires an act of co-option between spectator and performer in their shared pretence, but If a spectator cannot take Riggan’s body as the body his theatrical reality requires, then for them the illusion ceases to be: It is simply Birdman acting out of character on the stage. Hence Riggan’s turn to a presence based form of live performance that does not seek to hide his own body but embraces and presents the contradictions.
In that sense Birdman presents a classic question regarding authenticity in performance: that if a performer were to perform an outrageous act, to injure themselves, or to give up the pretence of performance in favour of enactment? Would the audience be able to tell the art from the artifice? and does it matter if they can or not?
Join me next time for “Synecdoche, New York” by Charlie Kaufman